Reviewby Bamboo Dong,
The Cat Returns
Haru is an ordinary high school girl with a clumsy streak and a love for cats. One day, she saves a mysterious cat from an oncoming truck, and is surprised when he stands up to thank her. Soon after, she's showered with gifts from other cats, and eventually asked if she'd like to marry the prince of Cat Kingdom. When her shock is registered as acceptance of the proposal, Haru realizes she needs to find a way out of the arrangement. She hears a voice that tells her to seek help from the Cat Bureau, where she meets a handsome cat named Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. Before he can do anything, she and a fat cat named Muta are whisked away to the Cat Kingdom by a horde of cats. There, she realizes that she's slowly turning into a cat, and must find a way to make it back to her own world before the transformation is permanent.
It's difficult to talk about Studio Ghibli films without comparing them to one another. Whether they're directed by Hayao Miyazaki or not, everything is perpetually compared and contrasted. In that regard, for those who are keeping score, The Cat Returns is not as good as the pantheon of Miyazaki or Takahata classics, but certainly worthy of the shelf space next to them. Remarkably, it was the first director credit for Hiroyuki Morita, who had previously worked on Ghibli projects before as an animator, and since then has directed only Bokurano and a One Piece special. For a first time effort, though, The Cat Returns is a splendid film, filled with thoughtfully planned movement and charm. It shines the most in its action scenes, which features characters dashing up winding staircases, running from tuxedo-patterned cats, jumping over buffets, and zooming into portals atop giant ravens. That these scenes are so lively are not a surprise—prior to The Cat Returns, Morita had drawn key animation under both Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon, both renowned for their cinematic eye and attention to detail.
What The Cat Returns lacks in a splashy Ghibli stable production staff (fans may recognize head writer Reiko Yoshida's name from K-ON, Kaleido Star, and a host of other prominent titles), it makes up for with good old-fashioned charm, quaint settings, a colorful set of characters, and a rollicking sense of adventure. There are scenes that never fail to bring a smile to my face—like Haru being chased through the streets by a throng of adoring cats, and the setting sun lighting up the windows in the alcove that houses the Cat Bureau, and the exuberant chase scene through the Cat Kingdom maze, led by the huffing and puffing Muta. Watching The Cat Returns makes me feel like a kid again.
Superficially, the movie is a bit like Spirited Away, which is also getting a Blu-ray and DVD release this week, in that it also features a heroine who's been whisked away into an enchanted kingdom and must escape before she loses herself. But with this film, it's a little more simple. Girl gets taken away, girl gets rescued, girl escapes. Along the way, she learns that kind acts are often rewarded. It's not a complex movie, but it is one that works perfectly well as a delightful bit of escapism.
There is a sense of wonder that permeates this film, thanks in large part to the visuals and the expressive animation. Anthropomorphic animals are not rare in animated films, but the cats inside The Cat Returns possess a softness and grace that sets them apart from your usual talking animals. Baron is as dashing and as handsome of a lead as anyone could ask for (though he is actually not a cat, but a toy cat brought to life—familiar to anyone who's seen Whisper of the Heart). He's especially well-cast in the star-studded 2005 Disney dub, where he's brought to life by Cary Elwes. Comic relief Muta embodies the virtues of a fat, oafish cat, simultaneously sassy and grumpy, but with a gentle heart towards those he cares about. These two characters represent much of what makes this movie work—the cats feel like real, personable characters, without the usual tawdry cartoon pitfalls of "they're cats, remember??" behavior, like scratching at couches, or licking their butts. Much like Studio Ghibli's other offerings, The Cat Returns doesn't treat its younger viewers like buffoons who need to be distracted by bells and whistles and cheap jokes.
The animation is likewise beautiful, and everything you would expect from a Studio Ghibli movie. The animals are full of life, and move with an elegance that works well to set the fairytale-esque ambience. One of the greatest scenes in the movie is when Haru and Muta are snatched by a crowd of cats, and are carried away as if on a river. They're followed by Baron and a large raven, another statue brought to life. It's one of many chase scenes in the movie, which belies the straightforward nature of the story, but it's a lively scene, filled with momentum and just the right touch of tension.
Chases aside, it's the small things that makes ordinary scenes come to life, and again, one has to give Morita credit. Scenes where Haru clumsily balances her book bag on her knee as she gets ready for school, or haphazardly loses her balance on top of a rooftop seem insignificant, but make a world of difference when viewed in context. The latter takes place during one of the chase scenes, where she's scrambling after Muta. When he dashes across a roof, she follows in a wide arc, struggling to regain balance after she alters course. Had she simply ran in a straight line, the scene would've been completely lackluster.
Music-wise, the score is charming, and matches the film's light-heartedness well. The central theme, penned by Whisper of the Heart's Yuuji Nomi, is appropriately exuberant and airy, which plays well with the movie's more spirited and adventurous tone. Especially noteworthy is the ending theme "Kaze ni naru" performed by Ayano Tsuji. It's a lilting ukelele piece that keeps your spirits high well after the end of the movie.
Of course, a Disney-backed celebrity cast also means that the dub is stuffed with seasoned actors, and those who've never heard this particular one before needn't worry about overall quality. Besides Elwes, the cast also stars a Princess Diaries-era Anne Hathaway, who shines as Haru. Other voices include Peter Boyle as Muta, Tim Curry's somewhat strange interpretation of the Cat King, and a host of others. Your mileage may vary with some of the side characters, but Hathaway and Elwes are a sterling pair, and really do a great job of carrying the film.
I've always liked The Cat Returns a great deal, but I've always also found it difficult to pinpoint exactly why, other than the simple reason that it makes me smile. From a thematic and atmospheric standpoint, it is most decidedly a Studio Ghibli film, with its strong heroine, trademark whimsy, and sense of wonder. But unlike Ghibli's flagship classics, which tend to be more contemplative, The Cat Returns is a children's adventure through and through, filled with chases, destined loves, and fat scowling cats. And while it may not have the most complex of messages, it is a solidly entertaining film that will delight children and adults alike, especially those with a penchant for gallant cats and secret worlds.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Fun, adventurous caper; great for kids
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